Wednesday, May 16, 2007

T Minus 10

Izicmo and her classmates at SVA just finished their first year, and have put on a show that I heartily endorse to those interested in graphic design (the thesis show is probably a good bet too). They're about social issues as toylines, in attractive packaging and done with more than occasional wit. Even the weakest ones have one or two items that are contenders for great ideas.

The good, the bad, and the not quite there as general categories are pretty much universal amongst most observers*. But final rankings end up may be exercises in taste, and it’s in the nitpicking that all the interesting talk happens.

My own contributions to such discussions are influenced by one of the quirks in my thinking, my faux-laymanism (what a terrible sounding –ism. I’ll replace it later.) Basically, there are a few exhibits that are middlebrow—as a category, not a pejorative. Meaning, hot topics the way “racism is bad” and “babies are cute” are hot topics. Nothing no one can’t get behind. I don’t mind that, though the thing is, if you present me a topic that don’t think I’m an expert in (as in virtually anything)**, and I think of something I don’t hear/or see commented on or considered, or in this case presented, then I think you didn’t try too hard. I’m pretty accepting of earnestness these days, just not lazy thinking. That’s pretty much what middlebrow is to me…anything I go with “yeah, and?” to. Still, I feel a little guilty when my judgment is more or less a huffy "not as smart as me."

My other tweak, and this is probably obvious, is that I prefer concept over execution, such that marginally different things, like the dim idea crappily executed, I find better than the no idea beautifully rendered. (I gather that the one I took as a dim exhibit may also have been a no idea one. But you got to give the participants authorial intent, or else you’re playing inside baseball—which isn't really part of this exercise and is playing off personality rather than work). So your reach can exceed your grasp, if you’ve got the nerves to talk something interesting. At least it'll be interesting.

I’m purposely not being too specific about the exhibits, because, well, there’s nineteen of them and I’m lazy and if you can you should see for yourselves. And if comic reviews are kinda awkward without pics, then this is an even steeper hill unless I turn it into a Slate shopping guide or I'll have to focus on one. May'be I'll try (oooh, another one for the wishful thinking bucket). Anyway, my criteria doesn't necessarily give you the best of graphic design (communication as creative problem solving?), but I do think my favorite of the exhibition, “Lone”, happens to be the most successful one too. Great execution coupled with subtle concepts. It should be a contender for everybody’s best, if not favorite.

If you folks check it out, look out for "Lone", the vinyl siding costume, the foie gras duck backpack (even if hanging them on the ceiling fan is a misfire), and the slutty virgin mary***, and give “Gloomy” time to grow on you.

* Of the sophisticated crew I was with. The rest of you unless I know you or you agree with me are all philistines.
** Except the Guardians of the Galaxy. I even wrote letters. One even got printed.
*** Bit of a gimme. But then, given the persistence of the Madonna/Whore thing, blunt is probably best.

7 comments:

HoBs said...

I like your "middlebrow" "faux-laymanism" "not as smart as me" description. Something I agree with very much that I don't think I've ever seen articulated much elsewhere.

Though I do have to give some credit to execution. If you look at the progression of fine art, it has moved from the craftsmanship of David to the nearly pure concept of recently passed Sol Le Witt or DuChamp, and while I eventually have come to favor the modern over the old, you still have to give props to the master craftsmen from the 18th century, but also the sublime photo realism of the likes of Gerard Richter.

I guess for me, ideas are everything, but ideas are also cheap, whereas craftsmanship and aesthetics takes devotion and skill, something deeper.

HoBs said...

forgot to add, I'm really bummed I couldn't make the reception/exhibit. ah well.

hcduvall said...

I think in context of projects from the graduate program at SVA, a certain amount of craft is a given before the nitpicking calculus begins.

You're certainly right about respecting craft, but I think once you're engaged and surveyed an art or a field or whathaveyou a certain amount, whenever it is people are pros instead of amateurs or it's a piece instead of a doodle, judging the mixture between talent and thought and skill comes in. I forget who exactly, but there's a "fine artist" who paints old pulp covers dot for dot, not even in the (debatedly) transformative way Lichtenstein did, and charges hundreds of thousands—successfully. I think technical mastery sometimes disguises or distracts people with spectacle over essentially dim notions. Films and comics seem to fall into that trap a lot. And while craft can always improve, ideas need to start good, no?

But there certainly is a baseline necessary before consideration even begins. Craftmanship, in this sense, is just the set of tools that describes how well you communicate your ideas. I know folks can have an opposite take (and I would make said opposite argument if we were discussing, say, poetry, where earnest and pure probably gets too much credit). Just no to lazy thinking then.

HoBs said...

Yeah, so it is a balance between craft and idea. From my lay view of Fine Arts, I think the recent trend (past decade or so) has seen the pendulum swinging back the other way, as craft has lately been given more prominence.

In comics, I still think that the craft in Watchmen was horrible in terms of how pretty it was (ok, I acknowledge that was in part technology, but I liked dark knight returns, and that was the same year) though the ideas were communicated quite well.

I randomly at the bookstore, after buying Astonishing X men, Vol 3 (which was great) on the spur bought the George RR Martin comic (whom I love as an author), which was tepid (albeit pretty).

And as a random aside, I am slowly working my way through sandman (vol 7 or so now), and I still think the craft (prettiness) there is spotty, not through Gaiman's fault, just poor execution occassionally of his ideas. Though I do fault Gaiman for at times still boring me, and getting too caught up in ideas at the expense of story.

Which actually reminds me of a nice line in an Ira Glass interview on Freshhhhh Air. He argues the success of TAL is that it is a show about ideas (like most npr shows) but what's special is he tells each one as a story (which is unique).

and actually, after hearing that, the show loses a bit of its magic... but oh well

hcduvall said...

I'd have to dispute that assessment of Watchmen vs. DKR. I think (beyond dealing with Alan Moore's famously intricate scripts), the look and style of Watchmen is so deliberate, and constrained (the nine panel grid), knowing it'd be primary colors...Gibbons had to get a lot of things right to get that to work. The same way I think writers who dip into the constrictions or expectations of genre show their chops then, I think Watchmen actually displays how good Gibbons is. Better, in some ways, than Frank Miller. I don't think the latter could put himself in that straightjacket of form and do as well. It's playing witht he rules that people can show off their craft.

I have a stack of Fell comics (9 panel grid bones, 16 page stories, one and out) that I mean to write about in the wishful thinking bucket.

Adaptations, particularily of prose authors who're alive to influence things, troublesome, I think. And yeah, Gaiman gets precious. Eyerolling so sometimes.

izicmo said...

I have to dispute the word "craft" being used as "prettiness."
In graphic design terms, it's the the care with which something is made, somewhat removed from the design itself, usually referring to the level of polish of an object (is the book well-bound? is the poster properly and carefully printed and trimmed? etc.)

For professionally printed and bound books, it's less a matter of the object itself or even of art work and more of layout, pacing, tightness of writing and artwork, harmony of artwork and story etc. And in the case of Watchmen, it's masterfully crafted. I grant that Frank Miller's art work is far prettier and more interesting to look at than Gibbons. But as a crafted work, Watchmen wins hands down.

HoBs said...

fair distinction (between craft and prettieness)